When 40 guests attended a corporate retreat at Taboo Resort, Golf and Spa in May, it was a beautiful day, and the allure of a patio overlooking Lake Muskoka in Ontario proved irresistible.

“They took their whole meeting outside. It was great,” says Peggy Mayo, director of Group Sales at the Gravenhurst, Ont., property. A more laid-back atmosphere was also on the agenda for a group that met in the winter and requested Muskoka chairs for all the guests in the meeting room. Taboo happily obliged, even adding a wooden bear carving, totem poles and Hudson Bay Company blankets to complete the room’s rustic feel.

While Taboo offers boardroom setups, clients often opt for more creative touches since many meetings at Taboo are part of corporate retreats. “Doing something more creative in the meeting room can help people think more creatively or outside the box,” says Mayo.

Creating a more relaxed environment, both indoors and out, is one of the top trends in meeting space design. “It’s a proven fact that meetings can be stressful,” says Yannis Paravalos, GM at Taboo. “They require a lot of concentration, and they’re very intense. By providing a relaxed atmosphere, and a more comfortable environment, [guests] relax their bodies and minds. It really induces learning and absorbing the information that’s being discussed.”

A key part of losing the stuffy corporate atmosphere is having plenty of natural light. “Meeting spaces were typically in the basement with really bad lighting, and they’re being brought out of the bowels and [into] natural light,” says Keith Rushbrook, co-founder of Toronto interior design firm II By IV Design.

When Toronto’s Trump International Hotel and Tower was designed, natural light was a priority for its meeting spaces. “We don’t have any basement or internal meeting rooms,” says Inna Levitan, CEO and managing partner, Talon Luxury Collection at Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto. “All of our event spaces have gorgeous oversized windows and natural light with high ceilings, so that was very important for us.”

Meeting spaces are also taking on a more residential feel, with boardroom setups being replaced with couches, lounge chairs, coffee tables and nesting tables where guests can rest their laptops, says Rushbrook. “[The set up] doesn’t need to be eight people formally sitting around the table,” he says.

When Montreal’s Hotel Omni Mont-Royal underwent a $20-million renovation last year, it created a residential feel throughout the hotel with a fireplace and plush chairs and couches in the lobby and foyer. “[Meeting attendees] are looking for a place where they can sit and have a conversation or an off-site meeting,” says Dominique Lapointe, GM of Hotel Omni Mont-Royal. “They don’t always want to be in the meeting room.”

Omni’s renovated meeting rooms, which range in size from 241- to 4,410-sq.-ft., feature an upscale, modern design with dramatic windows and abundant natural light. In the lower lobby level, a former restaurant was transformed into a “white box,” a room with nothing more than white walls, carpet and Wi-Fi. “Guests can transform the room into whatever they’d like it to be,” says Lapointe.

At Marriott Hotels & Resorts, meeting spaces have white walls, clean lines and a monochromatic, modern look. “We don’t want to have a ton of vibrant colours that are striking against your senses,” says Paul Cahill, SVP, global brand leader at Marriott Hotels & Resorts and JW Marriott Hotels. “When everything is just screaming at you from an interior design standpoint, you really can’t focus.”

A key benefit of a more neutral design is it won’t become dated quickly. “Meetings are a very capital-intensive business,” says Cahill. “How do you maintain new aesthetic designs when you’re dealing with, in some cases, 100,000-plus square feet? If you use a monochromatic approach, have clean lines and use woods, stones and metals — not pink marble — then you can withstand spikes in design trends,” he says.

The main challenge in designing meeting spaces is keeping pace with the digital demands of today’s always-connected business clientele. “Bandwidth is everything,” says Cahill. “It used to be ‘how do you get connected to the Internet?’ Now, it’s ‘how big is your pipe, how do I stream the content, how do I Skype into meetings from all over the world?’”

A fast, reliable Internet connection was a priority in the design of Toronto’s Trump International Hotel and Tower. “Fast Internet connectivity starts at the inception of the design, because it’s all underground and inside the walls,” says Levitan. “That was a major element we were looking for when we were thinking of what’s important as far as technology.”

It’s a bigger challenge at older properties, which have to undergo retrofits to increase Internet speed and reliability. Taboo is installing fibre optics this year to optimize its Internet connectivity. The cost of covering meeting rooms, guestrooms, public areas and administration areas will be approximately $100,000, but Paravalos says it’s a good investment. “Our system is very taxed now because everyone is using smartphones and tablets, and it can slow the [system],” he says.

And, even though the world’s gone wireless, there are still lots of unsightly cords and wires being used at meetings. “Technology is always that love-hate. You have to have it, but you don’t want to see it,” says II by IV’s Rushbrook. “Dealing with cords is always a challenge, so you need some kind of caddy or cabinet [so] these can be stored [and] easily accessed.”

At the end of the day, keeping up with the technology is all about keeping up with the competition. As Rushbrook says, If you don’t do it, your buddy next door will.

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